When people hear the term “core strength” they usually think about abdominals, 6-packs, fitness models, buff bodies and a number of other aspirational images. As an audience we can be a bit hung up on aesthetics and visual identity – core strength is not sexy, very often it can’t be “seen”, and it wont get you many social media “likes”, but its impact on your overall wellbeing is huge.
Your core is a corset-like set of muscles which wrap around the spine and help to support the trunk and all of its movements. It is made up of the transverse abdominals and pelvic floor, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominals (this is where the 6-pack comes in) and back extensors – multifidus and erector spinae.
Having a weak core is dangerous because where there is weakness there has to be compensation. Something has to hold you up. Something has to support your joints. Something has to balance you. If the core is not doing these jobs, other muscles will take over – this will lead to huge imbalances, wasted and inefficient use of energy and inevitably injury, instability, poor posture and even organ prolapse.
There are some exercises you can do to test the core strength but there are also some simple clues to look out for that are far simpler to spot.
Clue 1 – You’re injured.
If you have a weak core your other muscle groups will be working extra hard to support your skeletal movement. This leads to the overuse of certain areas which in turn creates areas of tightness. This imbalance of the muscle groups can literally pull your skelton/joints into awkward and unstable positions resulting in pain or discomfort.
This imbalance has a cumulative effect where it’s perfectly legitimate to associate a bad shoulder or ankle pain with a weak core.
Clue 2 – You have a bad back
The most common side effect of a weak core is a bad or aching back.
All movement should stem from the core “powerhouse”. It not only creates the force for movement but also the strength to stabilize the areas not required to move. Without core strength the spine can become very unstable causing the surrounding muscles to become overworked. These two factors can lead to back pain and eventual injury.
Clue 3 – You slouch
This is a double whammy for the core – a weak core can facilitate slouching because it’s not strong enough to lift and hold the spine, but it is also weakened further by spending long periods of time in a slouched position.
Poor posture is not just aesthetically displeasing, it can have a really negative impact on the position of the skeleton. When a position becomes the “norm” the body is clever and adapts to support this position making some areas really tight (overworked) and other really loose (underworked)
Clue 4 – Your shoulders roll forwards
The position of the shoulders is dependent on your core being able to support the lift of the spine and the position of the ribcage. A weak core will not support the spine effectively, creating a rounding of the upper back and a forwards inclination of the shoulders. Pain in the neck or shoulders will often occur because the muscles surrounding become overworked and tight in an effort to support the poor posture.
Clue 5 – You struggle with balance
Imagine building a house on sand or concrete. On sand, no matter how strong the frame is the base is insufficient to support it. With a concrete base we have stability and strength in the rest of the structure.
The core is the concrete base that allows the rest of the structure (skeleton) to operate in the most efficient way, creating better balance. As we age our overall muscle mass decreases in our extremities making core strength more important than ever.
Another important element of a strong core is its ability to engage in the split-second that it’s needed, therefore a strong and coordinated core that is able to engage quickly to changing external factors is the key to balancing.
Clue 6 – You suffer from incontinence.
The pelvic floor is a muscle stretching across the pelvis which supports the pelvic organs – bladder, uterus and bowel and helps to control their functions. The pelvic floor is part of the core so by accessing the deep abdominal muscles you will automatically strengthen the PF as well. The danger with not accessing this muscle is that it becomes weak and unresponsive so it isn’t there to when you need is (i.e. in stressful situations such as impact, coughing, sneezing) and that is when you experience leakage.
If you are experiencing any of the above, Pilates is a great antidote. Its holistic focus on the whole body will belp you to improve flexibility, increase balance, work through a bodies full range of movement and strengthen the core. You will stand taller, look leaner and reduce your risk of injury, all by focusing on your core!